This Knife Will Cut Deeper
by Elias Tezapsidis
In “The Magical Act of a Desperate Person,” Adam Phillips paints a compelling picture of a provocative argument: he asserts that we all spend our lives in recovery from the sadomasochistic experiences we were exposed to as children. Specifically, our personalities can be greatly understood via an analysis of the power dynamic that defined our relationships to our parents whilst throwing tantrums during our childhood. Whether the parents succumb to the emotional pressure their offsprings exercise, or let their exaggerated desperation wither ultimately shapes the kids’ understanding of authority, as a force to neglect or abide to, accordingly.
Incest is an uncomfortable topic to divulge in, due to the strong moral judgments the expression of any differing opinions would yield. Yet, it does appear — or is at least heavily implied — in the media, sometimes even serving as the “edgy” selling point of films such as The House of Yes, The Dreamers and the Greek film Dogtooth.
Then there’s the painful voyage of Oscar, the ghost-protagonist of Enter The Void, who shares an uncomfortable intimacy with his sister. Enter The Void stands out particularly due to the fact it brings attention to how the siblings are forced to “learn” power dynamics from each other following the death of their parents; they are to stick together and navigate the world side-by-side in a sexless, yet romantic, fashion. Presented from the optical stance of Oscar — in his postmortem and hallucinogen-induced blurry state — as he watches his sister engage in sexual acts, the viewer cannot evade a degree of self-disgust: this voyeurism crosses the line. The inappropriateness the viewer experiences, however, is maximized if he/she can empathize with Oscar; the incestuous undertone serves as a mechanism to draw power.
The Knife definitely employs the shock-value of an incestuous theme to further strengthen their mission in creating powerful work. The music duo is comprised of Swedish siblings Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson. They produce and release their music through their own label, Rabid Records, and therefore are in complete creative control of their artistic product.
Their independence from a streamlined musical brand strategy adds to their unique and unapologetic mystique. Additionally, it strengthens the meaningfulness of their work: they focus on the aspects of the process they enjoy and only perform the absolutely necessary of the aspects they do not enjoy. Stripped of the marketing techniques that are applied on other musicians by their studios and their abstract line of managerial handlers, the Dreijers are able to ameliorate their presence on a dual level. First, they do not have to abide to expectations of audiences in regards to presenting themselves. Second, the intended mission of their work does not get lost in a chimera of commodified marketing attributes: it arrives in its organic form.
The unique power dynamic this independency creates, in how The Knife relate to their audience, can be understood in the alluring mystery that surrounds them as individuals. But their quizzical dimensions as individuals comes in direct contrast to their transparent firm political beliefs: against racism, xenophobia, homophobia and broader inequalities.
The stylistic musical tone the talented siblings are going for is not a uniform one, but varied and complex: sad yet pleasant, distant yet close. Much like a soundtrack to genuine experiences, the artists want to cover a wide spectrum of contradictory states faithfully. Olof synthesizes the melodies and primarily focuses on harmonics to provide the delicate emotional base that will buttress the lyrics. Even Olof admits his periodical uncertainty in deciphering what Karin’s lyrics are referring to: they are a mystery to him, too.
Knife of Mystery
In an interview for The Fader, Karin’s behavior is so described: “easy to dismiss her demeanor as nonchalant, but the romanticism lies in keeping her mysterious.” The Knife’s desire to remain semi-anonymous becomes apparent when one tries to learn more about them as individuals. Finding Karin and Olof outside of their work is an arduous — if not impossible — task, a fact that cannot be an accident for individuals who have attained their level of fame: they want to keep their private lives removed from the art they produce.
In their role as performers, they understand their physicality is a necessary feature; they cannot escape presenting themselves altogether. However, instead of providing a full eponymous body linked to their music, the Dreijers usually conceal a significant degree of their appearance by using theatrical techniques, such as dramatic bird masks or elaborate costumes. This semi-anonymous — at least visually — aspect of their art makes it easier for the audience to appreciate their work in its purest form, without the flamboyant tricks the entertainment culture has imposed on performers.
In the framework Baudrillard provides in Simulacra and Simulation, The Knife’s theatricality would lead one to consider them agents engaging in “dissimulation.” Dissimulating does not alter the principle of reality, it solely masks it. On the contrary, simulation — which is the practice most pop stars would employ on stage while performing — poses a threat between what is “real” and what is the “imaginary.” Hence, we can understand that this endeavor of the group for semi-anonymity is a choice to follow a more challenging path, one in which they choose to maintain a distinct understanding of reality by denying to perform as an extension of their true selves. This distinction plays a crucial role in their ability to both emanate mystery and to exercise power via their artistic vision. As a creative choice, it also projects a beautiful message of artistic earnestness: the audience is invited to enjoy the music and relate to it, but does not need to idolize Karin and Olof as individuals to demonstrate this appreciation. Ultimately, this project extends beyond the egos of its constituents, an utmost refreshing stance in the entertainment industry.
While the reasons they approach their public presence this way have not been directly disclosed, it seems safe to assume that they want to protect their individuality as people outside of their work. However, another layer of arguments for their pursuit of semi-anonymity occurs when one considers people’s reaction towards the band as a strange one. “Strange” might denote a criticism, but it most certainly comes hand in hand with audience’s thirst to understand and explore the fuller latitude of said ‘strangeness.’ In our age of hyper-connectivity, which is defined by the oversharing of individuals in all industries, deciding to hold on personal information, as The Knife does, is a rarity and fosters a benign mystery that accentuates an otherworldly character.
Knife With A Mission
By choosing a selfless — or at least a not self-absorbed — mission as artists, The Knife illustrates how romantic idealism continues to exist and to be linked to creative energy. Artists use different stratagems to create. Some pursue a production path that outsiders would consider as balanced and healthy: set up realistic goals and work towards them in a pragmatic time manner. The rest of us need to push our creativity through anxiety, stress, pain and a less dignified — from an outsider’s point of view again — ‘hunger,’ a curiosity that defies routines, schedules and realistic goal-setting. It arrives as no surprise, due to the limited interviews the siblings have ever given, that we cannot decipher the sort of creative energy that drives them.
The structure of the modern artistic process has been altered due to the omnipresent technological dependency of artists. The traditional art community of the past has been enriched by the cyber-microcosm of tech-savvy creatives, transitioning from a networked entity to an entity of the hyperconnected. In the framework of hyperconnectivity, the projection of creative identities often becomes performative, because shock value now more than ever before, appeals to the art market. Ultimately, artists’ need for solipsistic validation often destroys their real understanding of what they genuinely value as art-producers. In an attempt to become a part of the art community they succumb to outsiders’ “likes” and retweets, and become a simulacrum that has lost some of its ‘reality.’ As aforementioned, The Knife successfully escapes that danger by incorporating sartorial “gadgets” and employing theatrical techniques to distinguish between who they are as people and who they are on stage.
Karin has reportedly expressed her inability to divide art from politics; she cannot create without thinking of her circumstances. Therefore, the political connotations of the songs do not demonstrate an intentionally political character, but rather express a character better understood when accounting for the political milieu in which they were conceived. Olof has also expressed his critical opinion of the Swedish government, and particularly the ‘Folkpartiet’ segment of the coalition parties: “It has put forward a number of problematic propositions, for example, a compulsory Swedish language test for immigrants and to make sure that unemployed immigrants are not entitled to social welfare anymore.”
It is the firm belief in the impossibility of proceeding with a creative process devoid of politics that crystallizes the duo’s grand and lofty mission: making their audience attain a higher level of empathy for the less privileged. By awakening one’s empathy, The Knife successfully triggers the emotion that is most likely to yield pragmatic change. Thus, the Dreijer siblings serve as catalysts for change on a broad level, particularly in challenging notions of gender, race and ethnicity.
The Knife considers the production of videos an indispensable part of realizing their work and overall vision. This feeling is apparent in the visually compelling video for Pass This On, in which a female impersonator is performing in front of room of — what appear to be — various strangers. The transvestite is openly flirting and making eye-contact with Olof, while singing “I am in love with your brother,” naturally, in the presence of Karin. Karin is most prominently featured in the video towards the end, following a scene during which Olof danced and flirted with the female impersonator. The foremost intriguing interaction to observe in the video occurs between Olof and his male friend in the white coat, who seemed to initially be upset at or judgmental of Olof for succumbing to the transvestite’s magnetic energy. As the clip proceeds the entire room slowly gives in to the magnetic prowess of the performer, a prowess that is presented as an invitingly sexual female energy, regardless of gender. Pass This On certainly makes a provocative statement through sly small details that imply a lot but reveal little. Undoubtedly, the main premise of the video is promoting a gender-open lifestyle where individuals’ sexualities are fluid and the open-mindedness of subcultures can be embraced by representatives of different demographics.
A Tooth For An Eye, however, does not even subtly make political statements: it literally asks for the country to be “opened,” to change the current political regulations to better match the needs of the country. The masterful video contradicts Pass This On in terms of energy: it conveys a tremendous positivity that was absent. Beyond its upbeat nature of the melody, the gender dismantling that occurs in this video is also of a different nature: rather than romantic it portrays a homosocial intimacy that is foremost foreign from mass media. But rather than reinterpret what is already succinctly given to us as an audience by The Knife, it seems more beneficial to just reread their eloquent statement, accompanying their new video:
“A Tooth For An Eye” deconstructs images of maleness, power and leadership. Who are the people we trust as our leaders and why? What do we have to learn from those we consider inferior? In a sport setting where one would traditionally consider a group of men as powerful and in charge, an unexpected leader emerges. A child enters and allows the men to let go of their hierarchies, machismo and fear of intimacy, as they follow her into a dance. Their lack of expertise and vulnerability shines through as they perform the choreography. Amateurs and skilled dancers alike express joy and a sense of freedom; There is no prestige in their performance. The child is powerful, tough and sweet all at once, roaring “I’m telling you stories, trust me”. There is no shame in her girliness, rather she possesses knowledge that the men lost a long time ago.
The Knife should be more widely recognized for having the courage to actually delve into issues of inequality and injustice. By bringing attention to them in an empathetic manner, a meaningful step towards combating a problem is made: it has been framed. Despite the painful and discomforting mien of their subject matter, they have aligned their artistic mission to what is advantageous for others’ sake, not focusing on their own self-aggrandizement. The question of incest might have led to an acquired a higher competence in transforming discomfort and negative skepticism into power. The Knife’s precise mission is political, but with the politics of inclusion and acceptance that they are encouraging there is no mystery surrounding their continued success.
About the Author:
Elias grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, prior to attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was there that he discovered he was too neurotic and OCD for the Midwest and had a low-tolerance for the MN-nice. The move to NYC post-graduation seemed like the logical next step, and since then downtown New York has been home.